Patheos answers the question:

What is Holi and Why is it Celebrated?


Holi is one the most beloved of Hindu holidays. Holi, sometimes called the Festival of Colors, is an ancient Hindu celebration, observed in India for well more than two millennia. It is mentioned in several of the key Hindu sacred texts, including the Vedas and the Puranas. Holi is a joyous celebration of the coming spring. Because Hinduism follows a lunar calendar, the holiday may fall in either February or March. It occurs on the night of the full moon and continues through the next day. The spirit of the holiday, though, may last over two weeks in some parts of India.

The festival begins with a nighttime bonfire, called Holika Dahan, which symbolizes a burning away of dark memories or experiences, a purging of negative thoughts and feelings. The word “holi” means burning. Some may apply ashes from this bonfire to one another’s foreheads as blessings to ward off evil.

Participants may burn an effigy of an evil princess named Holika, who, as the story is told, planned to burn her young devout nephew in a pyre. Vishnu saved the boy while Holika burned instead, and thus the celebration has strong overtones of the victory of good over evil, of the triumph of devotion and worship over jealousy and hatred. There are many other stories associated with the holiday as Hindu traditions vary widely.

The following morning the colors begin. People flood the streets, dousing one another with water and then tossing dye powders in the air or spraying colored water on one another. Some may dress outrageously and parade through the streets, abandoning normal decorum. Others will wear their oldest clothes, preparing for the raucous celebrations. Colors fill the air; houses, clothing, skin, and animals are all layered with bright blues, yellows, greens, reds, and purples. Some traditions associate Krishna with Holi. Krishna’s skin is usually shown as blue, and according to the legend, he was afraid of being rejected by Radha, the woman he loved, because of his skin color. Radha, however, preferred to join Krishna’s colorful existence and let him color her skin as well. Thus, during Holi everyone changes skin color.

Families enjoy special meals together, and everyone recognizes that grievances must be buried, forgiveness offered, and the community restored. According to the local traditions, there are a variety of different foods and inebriating drinks associated with the holiday. People dance in the streets, reconcile with those they have offended, rub shoulders with people of different social and economic castes, enact the love story of Krishna and Radha, play practical jokes, and share blessings. Many find this an auspicious time to arrange marriages or create other alliances.

Holi is a national holiday in India, but it is also celebrated around the world. Other dharmic traditions—Sikhism, Jainism, and some Buddhists—also recognize the holiday. Since its religious content is relatively light and its practice is more strongly a cultural event, even non-Hindus love to join in the fun.

Learn more about Hindu festivals and worship here.

3/23/2021 6:32:41 PM
About About Kathleen Mulhern, Ph.D
Kathleen Mulhern is a writer, editor, historian, speaker, and professor. She teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Colorado School of Mines and Regis University, and is currently an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary in the areas of Church History and Spiritual Formation. Kathleen graduated with a B.A. from Wheaton College, earned an M.A. in French Literature from the University of Denver, an M.A. degree in Church History from Denver Seminary, and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Colorado.
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